October 09, 2014

#BillSimmons is past his sell-by date; can he start anew? And #NateSilver? #538?

Bill Simmons, ready to pontificate elsewhere?
As Simmons nears the end of his three-week suspension by ESPN for calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell "Roger Goodell," speculation about his future has heated up again.

With the NBA staying with ESPN and Turner Sports on its massive new TV deal, that leaves TNT as the only place to which Simmons could reasonably jump from ESPN, since basketball is No. 1 in his sports heart of hearts, right?

Well, TNT, while having a great and funny hoops pregame set (and having Simmons mixed with Sir Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal would be nothing if not entertaining), it strikes me as thin on the ground on other sports, and per the piece, very thin on the ground on web presence.

Well, what if he decided to become a free agent instead?

Sounds interesting, no?

Well, not based on Grantland's web traffic, it doesn't sound interesting at all to would-be investors. (And, I'm sure Deadspin's top writers all know those traffic numbers and their 5x edge over Simmons, which is part of why they semi-regularly kick him in the nads. And, I'm sure ESPN knows, and Simmons knows, at least in part.

That said, if he did want to jump to a third party not named Turner, here's some possibilities. In terms of what IT needs, Yahoo would make a smart bet. Jeff Passan is young and snarky enough on baseball, he'd be a good mix. Yahoo's got other good sports columnists; some of them would love to do more long-form stuff.

But, especially if he wanted to go indie, who would leave Grantland to go with him? Jalen Rose? He might like getting a bigger ESPN presence. Bill Barnwell or Zach Lowe? They're both straight-up sports analysts, tied only to Simmons' branding and not his style or schtick.

He's need a second banana of sorts, too, probably. I don't know how much he likes Keith Olbermann, or if he'd be willing to pair with Dan Patrick.

And, although baseball isn't the NFL, it's still (even if audience skews older) bigger than the NBA, and Simmons has never been a baseball guy. He's got Ben Lindbergh now, but, in the past, has had to poach guest contributions/semi-regular appearances from the likes of Jonah Keri.

Building a brand in part as an indie films guy isn't a bad thought. I mean, that's what the Grantland 30-for-30 pieces are. That still couldn't be your overall vehicle, but it could be something. Plus, as far as trying to beat the Hollywood money bushes, Simmons has movie and TV critiques now part of his set-up.

Because you can't really build on Simmons the writer much more.

On his best writing ... he may not be past all parts of his sell-by date, but in his current incarnation is on the day-old shelf indeed.

He also, if he went indy, would need a COO type person. Not so much to keep Simmons on an editorial string, but somebody to override Bill's haphazard management; somebody to run the nuts-and-bolts stuff and, while OKing some of Simmons' zany ideas, saying no to others.

As for how likely any of this is? I don't know.

You'd also have to have a CFO type person who is both a rainmaker for financial backers and also a rainmaker for marketing, if Simmons were no longer part of the Great Red Satan.

Look at Ezra Klein and Vox. It's kind of struggling away from the Washington Post, and Ezra has more background on pushing himself than does Simmons, I think, plus more knowledge of how you do this from his time at the Post.

Speaking of him, that leads me to the lead anchor that is Nate Silver and 538.

Why isn't he doing better? That probably is dependent in fair degree on multiple parties having had wide-eyed, and poorly focused, ideas about the art of the possible with Silver at ESPN/Grantland.

First, Silver had had a narrow niche, vis-a-vis the WSJ's Big Data folks who eventually jumped ship there, and Ezra, and how he expected to readily build that niche at a sports website not a news website, I have no idea. It was blind, and dumb, leaps of faith from everybody involved.

Second, as the likes of Sam Wang was showing in 2012 (he outdid Silver on Senate races), while very good, Silver's success wasn't unique. It was the best-known not because of Nate Silver but because of New York Times.

That leads to the baseline questions, ideas and visions.

On 538, other than general touting, I'm not sure exactly how Simmons pitched it, what Silver pitched, and what ESPN expected.

First, other than British/European soccer, Americans aren't that interested in international sports. They don't want to read about pool in Zimbabwe, or whatever it was I saw a month or so ago that triggered a "538's new low" email to a friend.

Second, I do think that, based on the idea that Silver was politically liberal, and that some of his pieces might impart that, would bring a new mix of liberal-leaning news+sports readers to both 538 and Grantland. Well, his halfway anti-global warming piece with  Roger Pielke Jr. (and, AFAIK, he's never done the promised "clarifications" follow-up) shot that idea right in the ass. And, other news analysis pieces since then have done the job further. I got into a Twitter back-and-forth about 10 days ago with one of their writers, penning a piece I thought was too pro-fracking. It eventually caught the eye of somebody at least halfway more professional in the enviro world than me, who jumped in with backup stats.

Third, "Big Data" on news stories is just news analysis. To some degree, reporting on annual municipal budgets is just a small level version of Big Data. Other than trying to build on his own narrow polling niche (and it was narrow), plus the growing fame of Ezra Klein, plus the WSJ website (that has, like Ezra, since gone off on its own), Silver didn't have a lot he was brining to the table.

I expect ESPN to want some "restructuring" at 538 shortly after it hits the 1-year mark.

The NYT's decision to let him go, and the WaPost's similar call on Ezra, tell me that Brat Pack journos have been overvaluing themselves, that legacy brands recognize that, and that semi-legacy brands like ESPN will come to that decision more and more in the future.

No comments: